It happens again and again. You sit at your desk long after you first notice that your shoulders are tense, your stomach is rumbling, and your bladder is full. That night, you wonder why you're falling asleep over dinner. Or you've got a doozy of a headache.
In today's go-go-go world, your body is often last on the long list of things you tend to, its signals drowned out by the cacophony of goals, deadlines, and chores. "Our symptoms are our bodies' wisdom," says Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc, author of Natural Choices for Women's Health (Three Rivers Press, 2005). "They are there to tell us to pay attention and do something different." By tuning in to what's happening in your body?from brittle hair to bad breath?you can provide what it needs and dramatically improve your health.
"You have to make a conscious effort a few times during the day to focus your attention inward," says Tracy Gaudet, MD, director of the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine and author of Consciously Female (Bantam, 2004). It doesn't have to be fancy. Just the act of stopping, closing your eyes, and taking a few deep breaths can set the stage. "Turn your attention toward your body and look at yourself like your mom would look at you?she's the first one to say, 'Are you feeling OK?'?and see what you see." The following list can help you uncover the roots of some of the most commonly overlooked symptoms.
1. Dry, brittle hair
What it can mean: Low thyroid function (hypothyroidism). This frequently undiagnosed hormone deficiency slows down metabolism and can lead to weight gain, depression, PMS, insomnia, constipation, and migraines. From a Chinese medical perspective, dry hair can mean a deficiency in yin (the passive, female, inward-looking component of qi ["chee"], or vital energy) and an excess in yang (the active, male, outgoing form of qi)?a common occurrence in our million-mile-an-hour culture. It also can indicate a simple reaction to your shampoo or conditioner.
What you can do: Have your thyroid function checked by your MD or naturopathic doctor. Eat more foods that nourish yin, such as apples, bananas, asparagus, broccoli, celery, cucumber, mushrooms, spinach, sweet potatoes, and tofu. "In general, oils and fats are nourishing to yin," Steelsmith explains. "Make sure you're getting adequate healthy oils in your diet, such as flaxseed oil, nonhydrogenated coconut oil, and olive oil." Chinese herbs rehmannia and he shou wu (which translates as "black-haired Mr. He," for its purported ability to help hair grow dark and lustrous) also are believed to support yin.
2. Dark under-eye circles
What it can mean: Not surprisingly, the most common reason is fatigue. "This is usually a sign that your adrenal glands are tired, which typically occurs if you've been under a lot of stress," Steelsmith says. "It's analogous to what Chinese medicine refers to as a deficiency of kidney qi?the root of all the qi in the body? which makes your whole body tired." Dark circles also can be a sign of anemia.
What you can do: Reprioritize sleep and extra free time to replenish your energy. To help revitalize your adrenals, exercise regularly and cut back on sugar and refined carbs, such as white bread and white rice. To support your body's adrenal hormone production, take vitamin C (1,000 mg twice a day) and pantothenic acid (also known as vitamin B5, 250 mg twice a day), suggests Steelsmith. Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) are popular herbal adrenal tonics. (Note: Licorice also can increase blood pressure.) Finally, ask your doctor to test for anemia.
3. Bad breath
What it can mean: It's likely either an oral hygiene-related problem (such as infection in your gums or sinuses) or a gastrointestinal disturbance (such as high stomach acid or an overgrowth of abnormal bacteria in your small intestine).
What you can do: It can't hurt to be more diligent about flossing. And try using a tongue scraper, a simple metal or plastic device that removes bacteria from your tongue. To rule out periodontal disease or other dental problems, see your dentist. "If it's not an oral hygiene issue, consider working with a naturopathic physician to do an intestinal cleanse to eradicate abnormal flora in the digestive tract," Steelsmith advises.
What it can mean: If you're having less than one bowel movement a day, myriad factors could be at work. "It can be as simple as not having enough fluid and fiber in your diet," Gaudet says. Some medicines and supplements also can cause constipation, particularly calcium and iron supplements. Hormonal changes can be a culprit; it's common for women to become constipated during PMS or menopause.
What you can do: Increase your intake of fluid (water or diluted juices) and fiber (from whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables) to keep things moving along. Grind flaxseeds in a coffee grinder and sprinkle over salads, soups, and cereals. Start with 1 teaspoon and work up to 2 tablespoons a day. "Flaxseeds are very high fiber," Gaudet cautions. "You'll get a lot of response to them." To counteract calcium's binding effects, make sure you're also taking magnesium. "Start with 200 mg of magnesium a day," Gaudet says. "If you're still constipated, up the dosage to 400 mg."
What it can mean: Diarrhea can be due to abnormal intestinal bacteria or yeast, which can be triggered by taking antibiotics. It also could mean you have a food allergy. But the most common cause in an otherwise healthy person is stress. "Whenever you're acutely anxious about something, the GI system responds," Gaudet explains. "You might think you're coping with your stress, but your GI tract will tell you otherwise."
What you can do: If you suspect a recent round of antibiotics caused your problems, take probiotic supplements twice a day for about a month to re-establish gastrointestinal balance. An effective daily dose is 10 billion to 30 billion organisms of friendly bacteria such as acidophilus, lactobacillus, and bifidobacterium.
To sniff out a possible food allergy, eliminate suspect foods from your diet for a week. The most common allergy triggers are milk, eggs, wheat, peanuts, walnuts, cashews, fish, shellfish, and soy. "If the diarrhea goes away during this time, go ahead and try the food again," Steelsmith says. If the diarrhea returns, you may be allergic to that food.
If you're stressed, schedule relaxation time, whether it's a restorative yoga class, a massage, or a quiet afternoon spent alone. And try stress-reduction techniques such as meditation or guided visualization (see "5-Minute Stress Buster," left). Finally, for chronic diarrhea, see your doctor.
6. Peeling or ridged fingernails
What it can mean: Low stomach acid. Also known as hydrochloric acid, stomach acid is a major digestive player; a deficiency ultimately can lead to poor breakdown of food and low mineral absorption, which can show up in your fingernails. Nails also can become ridged after menopause when hormone levels are low.
What you can do: "If you have other low stomach acid signs, such as belching and poor digestion, consider taking warm lemon water before meals," Steelsmith suggests. The lemon stimulates saliva production, which aids in digestion.
If you suspect a hormone imbalance, take steps to support your adrenal glands (see "Dark Under-Eye Circles," above). Because adrenals play an increasingly important role in estrogen release as women age, boosting them tends to boost estrogen as well.
Freelance health and beauty writer Kate Hanley is the founder of www.msmindbody.com.